Escape Hybrid: An SUV For Today
By Bill Moore
A single lane of traffic two or more miles long slowly snaked north along I-35 on the southern fringes of Minneapolis. Cars and trucks that had been doing 70 and 80 mph were suddenly forced to creep along at 10 mph as the north-bound lane narrowed through a construction zone. Minutes slipped by and my plan to meet Natalie Auger at the Flat Pak House just after 3 PM gradually got later and later.
But there was a consolation to this all-too-frequent frustration faced by motorists from Beijing to Boston. Unlike nearly every other car ahead or behind me, I wasn't burning any fuel or generating air pollution. I was driving the new 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid.
After much persistence, Ford finally relented and arranged to give me a 4X4 version of the company's very first gasoline-electric hybrid. And it came well equipped with a power, six-way driver's seat, speed control, 16 inch aluminum wheels, a 110 Volt AC power outlet, retractable cargo cover, tinted glass, air conditioning, canopy and side airbags, leather seats, roof rack and real scene stealer, the $1,850 Energy Audiophile & Navigation System. Sticker price: $32,450.00 including destination and delivery charges.
Escape Hybrid comes with 2.3 liter, 16-valve Atkinson cycle inline 4-cylinder DOHC engine. The combined output of the engine and electric motor is 155 hp. The Escape has a 1000 pound trailer towing capacity. Additional vehicle specs.
Right up front, let it be known that like most hybrids, the Escape Hybrid doesn't get its EPA-adjudicated 33 mpg in the city and 29 mpg highway. On some segments of my various test drives, it actually did better on the highway than 29 mpg. From what little driving I did around my small town here in eastern Nebraska, I didn't see the 33 mpg, however. My numbers seemed to range from 27 to 30 mpg, but then we don't have a lot of heavy traffic congestion like I found in Minneapolis last week. Fighting a stiff headwind in Minnesota and traveling a 75 mph, my mileage saged to around 21-22 mpg.
Having driven a hybrid since 2000, I am probably a bit more practiced at trying to wring out the maximum fuel efficiency from a gasoline-electric hybrid than the average driver. My wife has told me on many occasions that it's made me a better driver.
My point is, I relish coaxing high fuel economy numbers out of these machines. So, my perspective is probably a bit tainted and as they say in those car commercials, "your mileage may vary".
I have also said on numerous occasions that I am not a big fan of sport utility vehicles generally, especially monsters like Expeditions, Suburbans and their ilk. If I had to transport a state road survey crew out to the job site, okay, they make sense. But when I see a 115 pound woman dropping off a package at the local post office driving one, I have to control my disgust and imagine that maybe she really has a need for all that room.
So, if you absolutely, positively have to have a 4X4 SUV with room for five, then something in the Escape class makes sense. I don't need one, so I probably wouldn't be a good candidate to buy this vehicle, though I have to admit there is a certain allure about that "command-of-the-road" stance and the solid feel of those 235/70R 16 Continental tires driven by Ford's "Intelligent 4WD System". If I need to get myself out of a snow bank, I'll have four wide paws on the ground aiding me.
And that's why a lot of people buy these machines. They like the "insurance" they offer, though the Escape Hybrid owner's manual cautions that while 4WD is great for getting you going on slick roads, it does nothing to help you stop. Cars and trucks for decades have all had four wheel braking, so a 4X4 isn't any better at stopping on ice and snow than a 4X2 model, and could even be a slight disadvantage due to its increased weight. But that's why we like being swaddled in all that steel, I guess.
Made in the USA
Another misconception that I should clear up is the urban legend that Ford is using Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive. It is not.
I repeat, Ford Motor Company did not buy, beg, borrow or steal the gasoline-electric drive system out of the Prius. It is "Made In the USA". Period.
Ford engineers clarified this question for me nearly a year ago at their Michigan Proving Grounds, and both Ford and Toyota have tried to get the media to report this fact accurately, but still I occasionally come across reviewers who erroneously claim that Ford licensed the technology from Toyota.
Toyota's Cindy Knight -- with whom I am personally acquainted -- told the Detroit News some time back, "Ford developed their own version of the power control system ... but it came up so close to what Toyota had developed that to protect from infringement, Ford licensed 20 patents from Toyota that make efficient operation and emissions reduction possible."
She added, "It is not really accurate to say that Ford obtained the technology from Toyota . So far, Nissan is the only other company that has planned to get its hybrid system -- or parts of it -- directly from Toyota".
The way the Escape Hybrid engineers explained it to me, Ford swapped patents with Toyota, exchanging some catalyst technology it owned for the 20 patents Toyota had. No monies actually changed hands.
Ford's Said Deep added in an email to me, "We have over 80 issued or pending patents in the U.S. related to the Escape Hybrid (25 issued, 57 applications pending). Ultimately, we expect over 100 U.S. patents to be issued covering the Hybrid Escape and plan to aggressively pursue additional patent protection where appropriate".
Colleague Charles Hoffman checks out the Escape Hybrid's 330-volt battery pack.
While the design of the Escape Hybrid system is all Ford's, the actual components can come from suppliers all over the world, which is typical of all automotive OEM's today. The 330-volt Sanyo battery pack comes from Japan, and is one of the supply bottlenecks keeping the initial production run numbers down, despite intense consumer demand for fuel-efficient hybrids. Carmakers and their suppliers were caught by surprise as sales soared. That's why Ford announced it would build only 20,000 Escape Hybrids in the first model year.
Toyota has had similar issues, postponing the launch of its Highlander Hybrid and Lexus 400h so its suppliers can get it sufficient parts to meet demand.
Touring the Owner's Manual
Like most car owners, I have read very little of the owner's manual that came with my Honda Insight. How to change the clock is about the extent of my reading. Oddly then, I decided to read the Escape's manual and found some interesting things, besides figuring out how to program that marvelous GPS navigation system.
Owner's new to hybrid vehicles will quickly discover the joy of automatic engine off and on operation, though having your motor stop on you at a traffic light can be a bit disconcerting at first. The Escape Hybrid is no different. The opening few pages of the manual explains this and a number of other characteristics unique to the Escape.
For example, it notes under the heading "Neutral operation" on page 6, "The vehicle does not charge the high voltage battery in the N (Neutral) position. Do not idle the vehicle in N (Neutral) for extended periods as this will discharge your high voltage battery".
It continues under the heading, "Escape Hybrid Unique Operating Characteristics".
"You may hear some unique sounds from a hybrid vehicle. The Escape Hybrid is equipped with a high voltage battery air conditioning system in the rear of the vehicle which cools the high voltage battery in order to ensure high voltage battery life and optimize performance. You may hear a slight clunk or tap noise as the vent door operates, as well as a fan noise in the rear of the vehicle; this noise is the high voltage battery cooling fan... These vehicle conditions and noises are normal and do not require service".
It goes on for another seven paragraphs describing all the different sounds the owner can expect to hear, which are entirely normal.
Paragraph fives states, "The engine speed in an Escape Hybrid is not directly tied to the vehicle speed. Under certain conditions, the engine speed may appear much higher than that of a conventional automobile"...
Paragraph six continues by describing how after certain servicing procedures the "vehicle's computers are relearning the operating characteristics of your particular engine in order to operate it as maximum efficiency".
The next paragraph reads, "The high voltage battery may go through a self-reconditioning process from time to time; these events optimize high voltage battery performance. You may notice slight changes to driveability during the reconditioning process".
The last paragraph is perhaps the most intriguing since it highlights one of the issues of using NiMH batteries: self discharge.
"If the vehicle is left inoperative for over 31 days, it may be necessary to jumpstart the vehicle". The manual then asks the owner to see the chapter on Roadside Emergencies for instructions on how to jumpstart the car.
Something else I found interesting while perusing the manual were the repeated references to safety. Ford has taken some pains to explain to Escape Hybrid owners that their vehicle also handles differently than a car. There are diagrams showing that the Escape is higher, shorter and narrower than a typical passenger car, and because of this it can go places a conventional car can't, but it also can't corner like a car with a lower center of gravity. I think I recall seeing at least three sections in the manual devoted to safe vehicle operation, including tire safety.
The Minneapolis Marathon
Given the track record of SUV rollovers, my wife as a bit nervous as we set out for Minneapolis some 388 miles north and east of Omaha. We had originally intended to make it a two-day affair, but it ended up being a 17-hour marathon out and back on Interstates 80 and 35, traveling at speeds between 65 and 75 mph, fighting a stiff northerly wind all the way.
The day began with rain showers that eventually cleared as we drove deeper into western Iowa. Weather.com reports indicated that it would clear north of Des Moines and it did, for the most part, only clouding up again as we neared Minneapolis. At this point in the trip, I still hadn't figured out how to program the navigation system, which requires you to insert the appropriate regional map into the CD player. The vehicle came with a set of mapping CDs for each region of the United States. Instead, I printed some Mapquest instructions to our destination. However, I forgot to print an actual map, an error that would come to haunt me later in the day.
Having driven the truck out to Waterloo, Nebraska on the western edge of Omaha a couple days earlier, I discovered that you really don't want to do more than about 55-65 in the Escape or you really start to pay for it in decreased fuel economy. Above this, it really takes a lot of energy to move that box through the air, especially in the face of a 20-25 mph headwind. So, I set the cruise control at a nice, steady 65, which is the speed limit on I-80 in Iowa, turned on the CD jukebox and listened to my favorite music, while the verdant fields of Iowa rolled by and more frenetic motorists raced past me.
As I watched my fuel economy be displayed on a moment by moment basis on the central energy-audiophile-navigation system, I wondered how those people passing me would react if they too could see how much fuel their vehicles were consuming at those speeds. Would it make any difference to how fast they drove... or what they drove?
On long trips like this, you begin to muse about some pretty strange things. On the way back that night, I got to wondering about how Ford could tie the cruise control into the nav system so that the computer would regulate the speed of the vehicle to match the rate of fuel consumption to the amount of fuel available.
What I discovered, with that 20 mph northerly wind at my back while heading south on I-35, is that by driving 65 again -- the speed limit in Minnesota is 70 mph -- I was able to gradually match my rate of fuel consumption to the fuel I had on board. After eating dinner in Albert Lea, Minnesota, I reprogrammed the destination for my home address. The computer said I could drive something like 268 miles before having to refuel. The GPS told me I was something like 287 miles from home; obviously I didn't have enough fuel to make it all the way without one more refueling top.
But gradually as the night wore on, and sprinkles of rain spit annoyingly on the windshield, the two numbers began to converge as my fuel economy steadily improved from 28 to 29 to 29.7 to 30 to 30.5 to 31 and eventually to 31.7 mpg at 65 mph. Somewhere south of Mason City, Iowa, my range actually began to exceed the distance remaining to my home south of Omaha.
That got me to thinking that it shouldn't be all that difficult a programming task to tell the computer to optimize your fuel consumption so you travel at the most efficient speed given your desired time of arrival. Since time is, for most of us, money, you would probably want to decide how much that extra half-hour or hour of travel time is worth in terms of fuel consumption. Maybe getting somewhere 45 minutes sooner is worth traveling 5 mph faster. The computer could calculate that for you based on the current price of fuel, distance to travel, and desired time of arrival. The nav system already has provisions for selecting the fastest travel route versus the shortest travel distance.
Or maybe, I was just behind the wheel way too long...
The Real Scene Stealer
As impressive as the Escape Hybrid is, I have to tell you that the navigation system was the scene stealer here. The closer we got to Minneapolis, the more I fretted about trying to find my destination. Neither my wife nor I could find it on the official highway map I picked up at the visitor's center on the state line. And the Mapquest instructions didn't seem to make any sense either. I feared that I'd arrive in Minneapolis and get totally and utterly lost, driving around in circles.
So, I pulled off at the next rest stop and spent the next ten minutes figuring out how to program in the address I wanted in Minneapolis. After several frustrating attempts, I finally figured out how to enter the street name and number.
Talk about a godsend!
That darn thing talked me -- using a very pleasant female voice -- right through downtown Minneapolis during rush hour, wound me through streets in the Kenwood section of town on which I know I would have gotten lost, and plunked me right down in front of Charlie Lazor's home.
Both my wife and I were stunned by its accuracy and relieved to have arrived at our destination with so little fuss. If we weren't already sold on the hybrid electric drive system, we have certainly become GPS converts! If I had to choose between 4 WD and the navigation system, I'd buy the 4x2 model and spend the savings on the GPS. After this experience, I am convinced it could save Americans almost as much wasted fuel just getting from point A to point B in the shortest amount of time or distance as they'll save with the hybrid drive.
One More Surprise
After touring the house, I took some photos and then reprogrammed the computer for a motel address in Albert Lea, Minnesota. The computer took in the address, busied itself recalculating the way there and then told us to proceed, taking us back out of the city an entirely different way than we came in.
It was on 435, that loops around Minneapolis - St. Paul, that the Escape had one more surprise to show me. As we neared the junction of I-35 south, traffic was at a near standstill, except for the right-hand lane. This lane was moving along at a fair clip, at least 25 to 30 mph. I glanced down at the instruments and noticed, to my surprise, that the gasoline engine was off. We were running on electric power only, passing hundreds of stalled, idling cars and trucks. It was like we had our own EVO (Electric Vehicles Only) lane. I am sure I was grinning ear-to-ear. I don't know how far we went on battery only, but it seems like several miles at 30 mph or better.
What if, I began musing again, all of those cars stalled every day on 435 in Minneapolis or in Dallas, Denver, or Dulles, Virginia were capable of doing exactly the same thing? And what if that pack could give me 10, 20 or 30 miles of electric-only range, instead of 1 or 2? At today's fuel prices, the Escape Hybrid costs me between 7 and 8 cents a mile. What if Xcel Energy or MidAmerican or OPPD, my utility sold me their off-peak power at 2 or 3 cents a kilowatt? I could be traveling around Minneapolis or Des Moines or Omaha for a penny a mile or less (assuming the Escape used only 330 watts per mile); and generating no local pollution.
In fact, there are hundreds of wind turbines in north central Iowa -- you pass two large farms on I-35 -- and in southwestern Minnesota. Some of that pollution-free electric power could be running a plug-in version of the Escape or the Prius or the Highlander or the Lexus or the....
But as I was saying, you start to get a bit punchy after 17 hours on the road. However, if I had to do it in an SUV, I am glad it was in the Escape Hybrid.
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